Personal Reflections: Saving Social Security

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Dianne Feeley

MY DAD DIED when I was 15. I was going into my junior year of high school, my younger brother was still in grammar school. From then on my mother received a Social Security check for each of us until we graduated from high school, and — since I went to college — until I was 21. Unlike so many students today, I finished college debt free.

(It’s true I lived at home and attended a state college, which in California at the time had only a minimal student body fee. Each semester I’d spend about $100 on books, and that would total more than my fee.)

Almost all the current discussion about Social Security is centered on retirement, but more than a quarter of those who receive Social Security benefits are disabled workers, their dependents or survivors of workers who have died.

During the Reagan administration, when Social Security was “reformed,” the benefits to children of deceased workers were trimmed. When the child turns 18 or graduates from high school the benefit stops. I remember how much not having to worry about college fees meant to me; so that “reform” was a great loss to society.

U.S. productivity is higher than it was fifty years ago, yet business leaders and politicians are telling us we can’t “afford” the meager social safety nets currently in place: We need to make “choices” about whether we prefer a further cut in benefits, or whether the retirement age, which is currently rising from 65 to 67, should be pushed back to 70. Lately politicians have been talking about how instead of indexing benefits to inflation based on wages, they’d rather index it to prices, thus slowing down any raise in benefits.

Today U.S. society has pushed onto the individual almost all of the social tasks we can better handle as a group. Child care, schools, parks, libraries, community centers, hospitals, clinics, care of the elderly and housing are all social institutions that need to be well funded so that everyone can be healthy, educated and safe. Instead they are constantly threatened with defunding.

This forces each individual to scramble and put together a plan for his/her own survival. Then the propaganda machine stigmatizes those who are less capable of accessing privatized services.

Social Security’s Success

The Social Security system is about the one public institution that still works. Its administrative cost is less than 1%. More than 44 million Americans — about one out of six — receive benefits: 30 million retired workers and their dependents, seven million spouses and children of workers who have died, and six million disabled workers and their dependents. This includes three million children under the age of 18.

Among retired workers Social Security represents about two-thirds of their monthly income. Fully 30% rely on it for 90% or more. Social Security is particularly important for women, and especially women of color, whose lifetime earnings are lower and who are less likely to have pensions.

Social Security is a system in which virtually all of us contribute and all of us benefit. Since it’s a plan in which our taxes are pooled, it has been able to guarantee workers with a low lifetime earnings a higher percentage of their earnings in comparison to other workers. That is, Social Security has functioned to keep the lowest-paid workers from dire poverty.

Although it looks like President Bush will not be able to push through his plan to privatize a portion of Social Security, he is still campaigning. Why?

I believe his mission is to undermine Social Security by placing so many doubts about its viability that even if he can’t force through a plan today, the seeds of doubt planted today — particularly among younger workers — will choke the system in the future. After all, this has been a plan of the radical right since the days of Barry Goldwater.

Ideology of Privatization

While the Washington Post estimated that in a privatized system stockbrokers, over the first twelve years, would profit $240 billion, I think there is even something more important than money at work here — and I think it’s possible for those who want to defend social programs to miss the ideological nature of this debate when we simply refute the deliberate lies and omissions of Bush and his ilk.

Yes, we can point out that by 2020 there will be $3.78 trillion in the Social Security trust fund reserves and that even if these reserves run dry by 2034 — a projection based on a downturn in the U.S. economy, which would also sink any diversion to private accounts — payroll taxes will guarantee another generation of at least 75% of the currently promised benefits.

We can point out that by several small changes we can secure the current system well beyond 2052. The most important are:

* Scrapping the limit of taxable income (currently $90,000) so that the CEO earning 100 times that figure continues to pay into the Social Security system. (Those who make more than $90,000 a year represent the highest-earning 6-7% of the population.)

* Bringing railroad workers and those state and local government workers who currently have their own separate systems into the Social Security system, thus increasing the pool and eliminating the higher administrative costs these smaller programs incur.

Our Vision

But even more importantly than countering the lies with facts is to present a vision that another world is possible. Too many of the strongest supporters of social security — like Paul Krugman in the New York Times — feel the only effective way to counter the attack is to argue on technical terms.

They maintain that the system just needs a bit of tweeking here and there. The reality is that today’s Social Security benefits are too meager — it is not enough just to protect them.

Let me take myself as an example: According to my Social Security record I have paid into the system for fifty years. I worked as a teacher, researcher, typesetter, movement organizer and production worker — both blue collar and white collar jobs. But only over the last ten years of my work life have I made more than $20,000 a year.

Starting in May, at the age of 65 and 4 months (full retirement age for my birth year), I will receive a mere $1272 a month in Social Security benefits. Fortunately I have a small pension and some savings — unlike a majority of women.

We who fight to defend Social Security must at the same time fight to extend it. In order to save it we must place the current debate in a broader framework, and be willing to raise the vision of a society not based on profit for the few and crumbs for the rest but a society in which everyone has the right to a safe, healthy and secure environment — the base on which to build a creative life.

Social Security was a reform that came out of the capitalist crisis of the 1930s. In that period the self-organization and mobilization of the working class opened up the possibility of challenging capital’s hegemony. It developed and nourished the idea that society as a whole is responsible for the well being of its members.

This social consciousness remains a dagger aimed at the heart of the profit system. For capitalism to flourish, solidarity and citizenship must be replaced with the notion of the consumer who is free to make “choices.” To the consumerized vision of the atomized individual we need to respond: Another world is possible!

ATC 116, May-June 2005